What Filmmakers Can Learn from the Docs-In-The-Works Pitch Competition: Tips & Insight From Prof. Nilita Vachani
The Docs-In-The-Works competition at Fusion is a yearly institution, but also perhaps our most misunderstood event to audiences – that is, until they witness it for themselves. The pitch competition is unlike any other, it’s an immersive experience that is both educational and professional, beyond what a classroom can offer. The woman behind this event, award-winning documentarian of the Grand Prize at the Festival dei Popoli and current Tisch professor Nilita Vachani, describes it as a “doorway into the real world [of filmmaking].”
Five finalists have already been chosen whose in progress documentaries show great promise in how they construct a powerful story through the documentary medium. All of them are in the running to win some very practical awards in completing their projects – including, Final Draft 9, Gotham Sound, VideoBlocks Subscription, and a WMM’s Workshop Pass. This Friday they will each have 10 minutes to pitch their documentaries and screen their trailers and 10 minutes to field a Q&A from a panel of esteemed executives from at HBO, Independent Film Project, History Channel, Impact Partners, POV, and Chicken & Egg Pictures.
Yet, as Nilita describes the event, it is “not just people sitting in chairs and talking. It’s a rapid fire Q&A that delves into story, characterization, narration, potential audiences, and much more.” The session can be just as exciting for the audience as the work shown; Nilita notes that “the panel often disagrees with each other, which makes it more interesting” given that all of the story conventions discussed do ultimately “depend on taste.”
Still, there are things the competitors can do in preparation to elevate their project to a level of refined, while still raw, taste before the pitch. Nilita coaches all of the finalists for weeks before the competition and offers some great tips, which she was more than happy to share with me so that audience members have the opportunity to learn as much as the competitors.
Nilita claims that often times in order to “bring out the strengths and address the weaknesses” of the project” often times “a re-edit of the trailer is required.”
In regards to pitching it is also important to bear in mind the time limit; in fact, the 20 minute pitch within the competition is another quality that grounds it in the real-world of both narrative and documentary production. “You only get 10 minutes to pitch and 10 minutes to field Q&A so to maximize the exposure, what you say verbally should not be a repetition of what’s in the trailer, they should be different yet work hand in glove,” Nilita explains.
Audience members find themselves completely engaged in Docs-In-The-Works year after year, more so as participants than simply as flies-on-the-wall of a high-profile pitch session. This year though the array of finalists alone are enough of a draw for a diverse experience in documentary work. Four out of five of the finalists follow the true life narratives of immigration stories, though they are all handled in extremely different ways. Two of the films are on Asian immigrant experience, “both dramatically different from each other and both shatter stereotypes.” One even implements an immigration story with sections told through animation while stilling holding true to the heart of documentary storytelling.
The most thrilling aspect of being an audience member at Docs-In-The-Works is to witness and take part in the shaping of true works-in-progress of true stories. “These films will have a life outside of film school,” Nilita says, “as will all of us as students.” Nilita’s words hold true for Emma Thatcher, a finalist from last year’s Docs-In-The-Works who went on to complete her project as her first feature To The Moon, and Fusion winner in Undergrad Narrative Film from last year, Erin Sanger, who credits being an audience member at Docs as her inspiration for directing a her own documentary on a wounded EOD war veteran post-graduation (For more on these two wonderful Fusion filmmakers and their projects check out our blog posts on them: Emma Thatcher and Erin Sanger). Come join us this Friday at 3PM in Tisch 006 to be a part of a Fusion tradition and truly professional experience in the world of documentary pitches, which at its core is really just testing the ability to tell a worthwhile story.
By Danielle Massie